Is Obama a centrist?

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is in a swivet. This would not, of itself, be newsworthy as they are virtually always in a swivet. That’s not a criticism, by the way. We live in swivet-worthy times. At the moment they are in a swivet because of the recent budget "deal" and their ever-growing ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is in a swivet. This would not, of itself, be newsworthy as they are virtually always in a swivet. That's not a criticism, by the way. We live in swivet-worthy times.

At the moment they are in a swivet because of the recent budget "deal" and their ever-growing sense that the president of the United States is not exclusively their president. There are even stirrings that it is time for a liberal challenger to the president in next year's primaries. These stirrings are not likely to amount to much as, at the moment, Obama looks so strong that even the Republican Party is having a hard time coming up with a credible alternative to the president.  But they are another sign that Democrats in Congress are likely to be more fractious going forward, with Nancy Pelosi's vote against the recent budget compromise exhibit A to that effect.

The liberals are concerned that the approach embraced in the recent deal and some elements hinted at in the president's speech are contrary to core liberal values, specifically that social programs should not be on the chopping block and that if the deficit is to be a priority -- and it's not clear some of them think it should be-the adjustments ought to come from taxing the rich, defense, closing corporate loopholes, etc. They also are worried about the president's recent support for trade deals like those with South Korea or Colombia. And they don't much like the intervention in Libya or the decision to double-down in Afghanistan. And they feel like the president was sold out by advisors who are too close to Wall Street and that's why "reforms" were incomplete. (None of them seem to be much mollified by the fact that the budget deal is a complete sham, saving in real terms more like $350 million than the vaunted $30-plus billion.)

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is in a swivet. This would not, of itself, be newsworthy as they are virtually always in a swivet. That’s not a criticism, by the way. We live in swivet-worthy times.

At the moment they are in a swivet because of the recent budget "deal" and their ever-growing sense that the president of the United States is not exclusively their president. There are even stirrings that it is time for a liberal challenger to the president in next year’s primaries. These stirrings are not likely to amount to much as, at the moment, Obama looks so strong that even the Republican Party is having a hard time coming up with a credible alternative to the president.  But they are another sign that Democrats in Congress are likely to be more fractious going forward, with Nancy Pelosi’s vote against the recent budget compromise exhibit A to that effect.

The liberals are concerned that the approach embraced in the recent deal and some elements hinted at in the president’s speech are contrary to core liberal values, specifically that social programs should not be on the chopping block and that if the deficit is to be a priority — and it’s not clear some of them think it should be-the adjustments ought to come from taxing the rich, defense, closing corporate loopholes, etc. They also are worried about the president’s recent support for trade deals like those with South Korea or Colombia. And they don’t much like the intervention in Libya or the decision to double-down in Afghanistan. And they feel like the president was sold out by advisors who are too close to Wall Street and that’s why "reforms" were incomplete. (None of them seem to be much mollified by the fact that the budget deal is a complete sham, saving in real terms more like $350 million than the vaunted $30-plus billion.)

In other words, they feel that Barack Obama is — gack! — a centrist.

They take no comfort in the fact that, as reported in today’s New York Times, John Boehner is also taking heat from the wingnuts in his party for cutting a deal with Obama. Which begs the question: do these people understand the difference between politics and governing?

Personally, I think Obama is a liberal at heart (his writings and record before becoming president suggest this) who is also profoundly pragmatic. (Just like I think Boehner is a conservative at heart who is also profoundly pragmatic.)

Pragmatism may sound cheap and valueless, but compared to inaction in the face of urgent issues it’s not so bad. Many of Obama’s policy choices are compromises. Some are between him and the right, some are between him and the hawks in his administration, some are between him and our European allies, some are between him and the left and no doubt many are between him and his conscience or his own aspirations.

This makes idealists crazy because they feel like he should fall on his sword and bleed to death for the purest expression of the most extreme form of his values … or rather, of their values. It’s a crazy expectation. The real question they should be asking is whether Barack Obama is the electable presidential candidate most likely to do the best job advancing their interests. All other possibilities are either fantasies or would produce even greater disappointment.

Personally, Obama drives me nuts. He regularly makes decisions that are a sign of his inexperience or his impulse to premature compromise.  It is inexcusable that America regularly elects presidents with zero foreign policy experience even though it costs us dearly every time. He is nothing like the transformational figure that was advertised. He is a professional politician who has shown a pronounced bias for hiring other pols for top jobs in his administration, even for policy jobs where he would do better with advisors with deeper, different, policy and management experience. He is, in the end, more or less just like all other professional politicians in history, just a 21st century version, more in tune with the moment and, in all likelihood considerably smarter and of considerably better character than all but a tiny handful of the very best professional politicians we’ve ever elected.

The fear of hawkish critiques led to a wrong decision to deepen in Afghanistan. The desire to compromise led to an extension of the Bush tax cuts that is deeply fiscally damaging. The inexperience led to a mismanagement of the start of the Libya intervention and is likely to lead to big problems from Iran to Gaza to China in the months and years ahead. The healthcare deal was not too weak because it veered to the middle, it was too weak because it was a hopeless muddle. Wall Street has coopted our system of government and the reality is the president is as much a victim and an enabler as any other politician who doesn’t stand up for real campaign finance reform.

None of these things make Obama a centrist. True centrists don’t just calculate the difference between two extremes and take it. Historically they have picked and chosen, sometimes sticking to principles of the left, sometimes of the right, sometimes choosing an independent course. For example, "new Democrats" focused on striking a balance between fiscal responsibility, strong defense and social conscience. It wasn’t big government or small government over-simplifications. It was government should do what only government can do and markets should do what markets do better. (And as one of them, I want to acknowledge that we "new Democrats" gave markets too much latitude back in the 1990s when we were advancing those policies. Markets need strong regulation to serve the interests of the public at large rather than just those of the few. Market Darwinism doesn’t produce the social justice which is the highest and correct objective of any society.)

So the liberals need to re-think their critique on several levels. First, Obama is not a centrist, he is a pragmatist. Second, he’s their pragmatist-of all the pragmatists in all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, he’s pretty close to the best they’re going to do right now. Finally and most importantly, a pragmatist in power is much better than an idealist on the sidelines in a swivet.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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